The Missouri General Assembly is considering two bills that would create a voluntary open enrollment policy in the state, and some are concerned the policy may widen existing gaps in education.
Senate Bill 5 and House Bill 253 would create the Public School Open Enrollment Act. It would allow public school students to transfer from their home district to any other public school district that has opted into the program.
Students may leave a district that has not opted in for another district that has, although both open enrollment bills allow districts to cap how many students can leave for the first couple of years after the policy’s adoption.
Both bills have passed out of their committees. Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, is the chairman of the committee that considered the Senate version of the bill as well as the bill’s sponsor. His bill is on the informal calendar for perfection, lining it up for floor debate. The House bill is on the formal calendar for perfection.
Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, said he is advancing open enrollment legislation because it would give students and parents more choice. He said parents who live in one town and work in another town may prefer to send their children to the school where they work, and parents whose values clash with their local districts may want to send their children to a district that suits them better.
“You know, I don’t want to blow up the public education system,” Pollitt said. “I think public education is very important to the state of Missouri and to the United States, and I would like to give parents a choice within that system if they’re unhappy with their district.”
Nearly all states have some form of open enrollment, including Missouri in very specific cases, but just over half have a policy similar to what is being proposed in Missouri that does not depend on proximity, school performance or agreements between two districts. Some of these states require all districts to opt into the program.
Koenig said he would have no problem making open enrollment mandatory in the future but would prefer to pass the legislation as voluntary and see how it plays out first. He said the fact that many other states’ public schools operate with open enrollment shows that it will work in Missouri, too.
“You have as many as 43 states that have some version of open enrollment, so this notion that open enrollment is somehow going to destroy public education is nonsense because the vast majority of states have it,” Koenig said.
Concerns of rural schools
Kyle Kruse, superintendent of the St. Clair R-XIII School District, testified against Pollitt’s bill at a hearing in late January. Kruse said he expects his district, which is in rural Franklin County, to lose about 100 students and $400,000 of state and federal funding if the state adopts open enrollment because his district has less money and fewer resources than surrounding districts.
Losing students would be difficult for the district because students from across grade levels would leave, Kruse said. This would force the district to make tough choices about which staff positions to cut and which classrooms to consolidate.
Pollitt said if schools are concerned about losing students to open enrollment, they need to address why students and parents want to leave. He said the pressure of losing students will help districts improve.
“We compete on the athletic fields every day in every public school in the state,” Pollitt said. “Why wouldn’t we want to compete in the academic field?”
Koenig said districts that lose students to open enrollment would need to “get creative” and listen to parents’ and students’ concerns. He said it was possible open enrollment could not only inspire districts to perform better, but individual students as well, as they would have freedom to choose a school with courses that interest them.
Kruse said competition is only competition when it is on a level playing field. He said that because much of a school’s funding comes from local property taxes and bond issues, schools in lower-income areas are simply unable to compete with wealthy districts in providing new opportunities and flashy facilities.
“There are good schools who are geographically located in areas that are away from industry, and they’ll suffer,” Kruse said. “There are schools who are great academically, but they don’t compete at the highest level of sports, and they will lose students because of that. So (Pollitt’s) assertion that good schools have nothing to worry about is absolutely incorrect.”
Jeff Blackford, superintendent of the Nodaway-Holt R-VII School District in rural northwest Missouri, said competition for students “drives away from the actual reason why we’re here.”
In January, the school board in Blackford’s district and other school boards in Nodaway County adopted a resolution written by the Missouri Association of Rural Education opposing open enrollment.
Blackford said he expected many districts would lose their highest-achieving students to open enrollment, leading to lower test scores, which would make that district even less competitive in attracting students.
School districts in Missouri receive a mix of federal, state and local funding, and federal and state funding will follow transfer students to their new district while local funding from property taxes and other sources will stay in the students’ home district. However, both bills stipulate that receiving districts are not required to add teachers, classrooms or staff to accommodate new transfers.
Rep. Adrian Plank, D-Columbia, said local schools are the “driving economic force” in small towns in his district such as Harrisburg and Sturgeon.
Terry Lorenz, superintendent of Slater Public Schools in Saline County, said in Slater and in other rural towns, the school district is the heart of the community, and losing the school district to consolidation would erase the town’s identity.
“The school is the focal point,” Lorenz said. “I mean, the building is used on a nightly basis by groups and teams and clubs all around this area. They come to depend and rely on the school as being a central focus point that they can always depend on and rely on, and when you lose that identity, you’re jeopardizing that loss of community support.”
Lorenz said his district could actually gain students from open enrollment, but given the state is experiencing a teacher shortage, bringing in many new students would not necessarily be a good thing. He said that either way, open enrollment would take the focus of education away from educating students and toward trying to woo students to come to the district.
Open enrollment in Iowa and Minnesota
Iowa has had open enrollment for about 30 years. Margaret Buckton, professional advocate for Rural School Advocates of Iowa, said the areas in Iowa that have seen the most inter-district movement have been “matched pairs,” which refers to a rural school district just outside a more urban district.
However, Buckton said the prevailing trend is that students flock from the urban district to the rural district. She said some rural schools would call open enrollment “the savior of their budget” because it has allowed them to afford programs they could not have otherwise.
Buckton said many students prefer rural districts because they have smaller class sizes and sports programs, which gives a student a better chance of standing out on a team.
She also said that two large towns that have been on the losing end of a matched pair, Marshalltown and Ottumwa, have one thing in common: They are both becoming more diverse, though Buckton said there is no hard evidence that this is why people are leaving these towns’ school districts.
Minnesota has also had open enrollment for 30 years. The suburban Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District has traditionally lost more students to open enrollment than it gains, causing it to frequently cut teacher positions and AP classes. The district is majority-minority, and District Communications Director Aaron Tinklenberg said most of the students that transfer out of his district are white.
Tinklenberg said the district has started to make headway against this trend after implementing a new program, One91 Pathways, that allows students to explore careers and earn certain certifications when they graduate.
However, Tinklenberg said that implementing the program was expensive and that not all school districts would be able to afford it. He said the district was able to pay for the program with partnerships and grants from local businesses, as well as raising property taxes.
Both versions of the Public School Open Enrollment Act originally contained language exempting schools subject to a desegregation order. However, Koenig said his bill will no longer contain this provision after conservative activists rallied against its inclusion.
Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said she feared that if open enrollment were available, white parents whose children attend diverse school districts would transfer their children to whiter districts.
“Basically, all students benefit from having a much more diverse school district, whether it’s race, or socio-economic, or religious diversity,” Arthur said. “Diversity is a strength.”
Buckton said she believes in open enrollment “with guardrails.” She said giving parents and students a choice is a good idea, but any plan should have safeguards in place to protect districts that have many minority or low-income students or that struggle financially.
Tinklenberg said it is good for parents and students to have choices, but he pointed out that one’s economic situation strongly influences how much choice one actually has. Pollitt and Koenig’s bills both create a Parent Public School Choice Fund that would reimburse transportation costs for families who qualify for free or discounted lunch, an attempt at making open enrollment more accessible to low-income families.
However, Tinklenberg said parents of low-income families typically have a lot less flexibility in their jobs and would not have the same ability to take their children to a far-away school. Tinklenberg said funding all schools more equally would also help open enrollment become a more equal choice.
“It doesn’t create as much choice as people think that it does, and it doesn’t create choice for everybody,” Tinklenberg said. “So the real important thing is fund all of the schools equitably so that they can all be good schools rather than suggesting that some schools are good, and if you can get there, you can send your kid there.”